Image: scientist-minifig from Maia Weinstock's Flickr Photostream

Is it possible to ‘sell science’ responsibly? It has been argued by many that much science reporting is based on fanciful and emotive news headlines that can misrepresent a story in order to draw readers in. Important strides have been made by the Science Media Centre (“SMC”), whose work I admire, to control this. SMC was set up to provide for the benefit of the public and policymakers, accurate and evidence-based information about science…through the media”. But does SMC ensure that a range of views are represented and how might this influence reporting of a specific issue?

One way the centre operates is via its ‘roundup and rapid reaction’ function: when a piece of research deemed controversial by SMC is press released and they then seek comments about the research from other experts. SMC then posts these comments on its website to compliment the press release and give journalists a more ‘balanced’ view of the research.

A number of scholars have already raised some interesting concerns about the ‘roundup and rapid reaction’. It could act as a form of control by the SMC over what they deem appropriate for journalists to include in their news articles. They also argue that the ‘balancing comments’ may be written by scientists with their own vested interests, and that the comments might encourage, rather than address, issues related to ‘churnalism’ (news articles which are largely reproductions of press releases) – something viewed as a major issue in science reporting.

How does this work in practice? As part of my own PhD research I analysed media reporting of two studies (2006 and 2010) that used brain scanning (fMRI – or functional magnetic resonance imaging) to scan the brains of vegetative (unaware) or minimally conscious (fluctuating awareness) patients in an attempt to detect levels of awareness and possibly communicate with them. For a small minority of patients researchers identified that certain parts of their brain ‘light up’ whilst they are asked to imagine various tasks. This ‘mental imagery’ has also been used to ‘communicate’ with one patient via ‘yes’ and ‘no’ questions. As is the case for many innovative biotechnologies, the reporting of the fMRI research was ‘hyped’. In other words, it was portrayed as a ‘breakthrough’ and a ‘remarkable’ technology, ‘providing hope’ for patients.

As part of SMC’s ‘roundup and rapid reaction’ function, expert comments were posted on their website about the fMRI research. Although these comments mentioned some caveats about the studies, the commentators still excitedly maintained that the studies’ findings were ‘remarkable and a ‘huge step’ which ‘in the future…will be able to detect cases of other patients who are conscious….and be able to communicate with them’.

It is impossible to know just how many journalists read these comments before writing their news pieces, but my own analysis found that nearly one third of news articles reporting the research in local and national UK papers incorporated an extract of at least one posted comment. We might then conclude that the SMC themselves played some role, however minor, in generating excitement about the fMRI research.

Part of the problem stemmed from the fact that in trying to provide ‘balanced’ information about the research, the SMC solely approached scientists for their views. Using scientists as sources of comment on other scientists runs the risk of perpetuating a cycle of excitement – regardless of the intention of the original authors. In so doing many of the social implications associated with the research are overlooked. It also runs the risk of giving the impression that scientists’ knowledge is the only important source of expertise, and in so doing prioritises the value we as a society place on innovative biotechnologies.

I conducted some interviews with families who have a vegetative or minimally conscious relative about the use of fMRI. It turned out that they recognised the importance of the technology. But rather than grand technological developments, many families felt that better ‘on the ground’ healthcare and better support was most likely to change their lives and the lives of their relative. A representation of these views, or even a questioning of the fMRI research from a non-scientific or technological perspective was missing from the expert comments on the SMC website.

I know that the SMC tries to include comments from social scientists on research if they are working in a related area and that this may be particularly challenging when the research is at an early stage of development. Indeed even getting scientists to comment at this stage may be a feat within itself. At the same time it seems that if there is no social scientist working in the specific intricate area, then it is ‘case closed’ as far as the inclusion of any non-scientifically-centred comments. Not to make further effort to include a viewpoint from the social sciences or humanities on the value and social implications of the science knowledge is a disservice to the SMC and means that overall, when comments are posted by SMC, they lack balance and depth. At the very least the SMC should broaden its database of social science and humanities experts to draw upon for quotations or expert commentary about science.

About the Author: Dr Gabrielle Samuel is a Research Fellow at the Health Economics Research Group, Brunel University. Her current work uses qualitative methods to explore the evaluation of research impact using REF 2014 as a case study. This blog is based on data from her PhD research, which was a media analysis of the use of fMRI for severely-brain injured patients. Her PhD research was funded by a Wellcome Trust Biomedical Strategic Award (086034).